When Fishing Was The Common Language During Strained US-Soviet Relations

Aug 29, 2014

In the competitive world of fishing, joining forces can be tough work. It’s even more difficult if the two parties are superpowers at the height of Cold War tensions.

Tony Allison, from the US side of the Marine Resources partnership, understood what could be gained from working with the foreign fishermen.

The Russians were the ones with the experience fishing for and processing these species. They knew where they were. They had already been fishing for them for a decade, decade and a half before the joint venture ever got going. They were the ones providing the knowledge.

Many of the US fishermen, though eager, were very green. They had never off-loaded their catch onto a factory trawler at sea and needed to learn quickly in an environment where mistakes could be deadly.  

Wally Pereyra, a fishery expert who became the first US general manager of the joint venture, explained that despite the Russians’ expertise, the working relationship wasn’t always smooth.

It was very, very difficult to work with the Soviets, because they didn’t fully understand how the marketplace worked. The way they would determine things was through brute force, so you had these acrimonious negotiations that would go on.

That didn’t seem to affect the fishermen as much. When the Americans were done offloading, they would come onto the bigger Russian trawler – with its bakery, food and vodka – and hang out and tell jokes.

“I was often in the position of trying to translate these untranslatable fisherman’s jokes, which ended up being quite similar,” Allison said.

The fishermen got along even when their respective governments did not. Allison said that fishermen found out how alike other fishermen were: “They found a common language very quickly.”

The US-USSR joint fishing venture is the subject of a new exhibit called “Wild East Meets Wild West” opening Sunday at the Pacific Maritime and Heritage Center in Newport, Ore. 

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Read: Back To The Cold War? A Seattleite’s Anxious Return To Russia

This segment originally aired November 8, 2013.